Gujarat's worrisome slide into intolerance of dissent

Jun 1, 2006 Mayank Chhaya

Actor Aamir Khan is discovering what many celebrities before him have done to their chagrin - the price of expressing a dissenting opinion in India's fractious and imperfect democracy.

In specific financial terms there is a way to put a price on Khan's dissent. "Fanaa", Khan's latest film whose release has been quasi-officially banned across Gujarat, would cost upwards of Rs.50 million (about $1 million) in losses to its makers.

The actor came under fire after he voiced support for rehabilitation of those ousted by the Narmada dam project and for his criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Gujarat for its alleged failure to control violence in Vadodara after the demolition of a mosque in the city.

The issue is not so much about the financial loss as it is about Gujarat's worrisome slide into knee-jerk and abrasive intolerance of dissent. The state has for quite some time been displaying intolerance peculiar to societies in early throes of fascism. Gujaratis are by nature pragmatic and seekers of the honorable way out of any dispute.

However, that laudable characteristic has been in serious decline for the past decade or so, roughly coinciding with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its virulent brand of politics.

The party has been strikingly successful in rallying the unusually responsive Gujarati citizenry, first around the issue of Hindutva and now around the Narmada dam.

In both cases it has subtly and not so subtly exploited the Gujarati passion for causes. Anyone who has the gumption to question the pervasive wisdom on these two issues has had to face unvarnished wrath in the state.

Dancer and social activist Mallika Sarabhai is all too familiar with her home state's visceral dislike for competing opinions. So is Narmada activist Medha Patkar. Actress Shabana Azmi too has encountered similar protests.

What compounds Khan's case is that he has chosen to express his views on both, the consequences of unbridled Hindutva and the plight of the farmers and tribal populations displaced by the dam.

That he happens to be Muslim who is speaking out against two of Gujarat's pet obsessions also fuels the fury against him.

At an intellectual level it may be a fair game to question and even deride Khan's understanding of the Narmada issue and the complex politics of water. But it is one thing to question his qualification and quite another to unleash an economic boycott against him.

In any case, Khan has as much right to express his opinion, however ill informed or half-baked, as any citizen of the country on any issue.

There is something fundamentally flawed about the street-side logic that merely because he is a hugely successful film star who gets paid tens of millions of rupees and has women of various ages swooning over him it automatically precludes him from acquiring a sound understanding of larger societal issues.

Deriding celebrities with strong opinions is not unique to Gujarat or India.

Many Hollywood stars such as George Clooney, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and others have faced the same level of censure for speaking out against President George W. Bush's policies.

It is fascinating to see how the right wing of American politics mirrors the right wing of Indian politics when it comes to dissent against the establishment.

Some time ago some leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had issued an appeal to Hindus to produce more children in order not to be outnumbered by Muslims.

Recently an anchor of the rightwing Fox News issued a similar call to "white Americans" to produce more children in order not to be outnumbered by Hispanics.

The difference between the two calls is largely symbolic - one is based on religion and the other is based on skin colour. In reality both are about supremacy of a particular group. Zealots on either side of the political divide strangely sound alike because Muslim fundamentalists are known to have issued similar calls. In some ways they have even pioneered that practice.

Intolerance for dissent is a bad sign in any situation but it acquires even greater urgency when it happens in societies whose members are as industrious, economically savvy and generally intelligent as the Gujaratis are.

It is interesting that even in their political protest they have built in a strong element of economics by imposing a boycott not on just Khan's latest film but even asking video and DVD libraries to pull out his earlier films.

There was news even about the protesting organisations, which are predominantly offshoots of the BJP, preventing movie fans from going to Mumbai and watching "Fanaa". If this is not an onslaught on individual freedom reminiscent of what early fascists did, then what is?

It has been argued with some legitimacy that outsiders confuse the loony political fringe with the people of Gujarat generally when it comes to issues such as Hindu-Muslim tensions.

However, what reinforces the impression that a substantial number of Gujaratis are becoming intolerant of any opinion other than their own is the fact that too few others speak out.

In this context the failure of the state unit of the Congress party is galling. Here is a political organisation which so handsomely mined the Gujarati passion for lofty causes during India's independence movement in the early 20th century is now looking askance as the debate has been hijacked.

To its credit the BJP has been successful in articulating some of the popular feelings on the question of Hindu-Muslim relations and how skewed government policies have become in favour a certain pressure group. There is validity to the party's refrain that celebrity activists of a certain hue pick and choose the wrongs they want to champion as opposed to speaking out against all wrongs.

Shouldn't Aamir Khan or Shabana Azmi or Mallika Sarabhai or Arundhati Roy feel as aggrieved and as exercised when Hindus die in Kashmir is the question frequently asked. Sure they should and they most likely do. But that is the essential part of the freedom to choose your causes and express your opinion about in any democracy.

Gujarat has always been at the vanguard of major national causes. It has the intrinsic ability to choose the right causes. Banning "Fanaa" because Aamir Khan spoke out in favour of farmers is a cause not even worthy of being ridiculous. Click the Movie button below for more info:


More News